Lessons Learned at a Longarm Rental Session

Posted by & filed under Longarm quilting.

Last month, I had the opportunity to visit a quilt shop in Victoria – The Cloth Castle – where the wonderful Natasha guided me through quilting my first top on the longarm quilting machine. I have to say, longarm quilting is not as easy as it looks! Or maybe it is for some, but it certainly wasn’t for me. I learned a great deal about longarm quilting in the 1-day session, and I’d like to share some of my experiences and advice with you.


I had previously taken a one-hour course at the store to learn the basics, and I was looking forward to working on my first “real” quilt. I was very excited, admittedly a little nervous, when I arrived at the store. Natasha’s calm nature helped me to calm down, and we got started. She patiently walked me through pinning the top onto the frame, and I picked out a pantograph design that I wanted to use.

The importance of squaring up your quilt top
I had asked Natasha for some advice prior to my session, and she stressed the importance of squaring up your quilt top and making sure all four sides were even and equal. The quilt top needs to be square, or it cannot be loaded onto the frame properly, and you’ll end up with crooked quilting, or puckers in the top.

Backing Basics
If you piece your backing, use a 1/2” – 5/8” seam allowance, and press seams open to prevent lumps. Natasha also recommended that until you have a little more experience, you may not want to use directional fabric on the backing, or pieced fabrics that are symmetrical, as they may not end up that way on your finished quilt!

Then came the hard part – the quilting. Let me tell you, it’s not as easy as it looks!

Simple is best for a beginner
I had told Natasha that I wanted to use a pantograph for an edge to edge design on the quilt. I chose a design, and Natasha suggested ways to make the design a little simpler and faster to complete. She had me trace the pantograph pattern with my finger a few times, to get my brain ‘trained’. Then I had a dry run with the laser on the longarm. Aack! What a disaster! I tried it a few more times and decided it just wasn’t going to work for me.

As a beginner longarm quilter, start with an all-over free-motion meandering design. It can be stippling, loops, or curves, but until you get the hang of the machine and how it handles, it’s best not to attempt any more complicated patterns or pantographs, as you will only set yourself up for frustration and failure.

I gave up on the pantograph and decided to go with big lops and swirls. The longarm machine actually lends itself very well to these designs, as it’s very easy to maneuver. Too easy to maneuver – that’s why I gave up on the pantograph. When I was practicing with the pantograph, I found the machine kept getting away on me and I could not keep the laser steady on the lines.

Slow and steady wins the race (or makes the quilt)
Most importantly, you do not want to rush through your quilting. Relax, take a deep breath, and let the movement flow gently. Natasha suggested to utilize the extra backing and batting areas to practice and play – that was great advice! I’ve also been told that if you have a specific free-motion design you want to use, practice it on paper first.

I found that the first one or two passes across the quilt were awkward and some of my swirls were more angular than loopy, but once I got used to the movement of the machine and became more comfortable with the design I was creating, my stitches looked better. Practicing in the ‘margins’ (as I call them) also helped immensely.

Because I opted for a simple free-motion design, the quilt was completed very quickly, and in the end I had a lovely, finished quilt. But, did I enjoy myself enough to want to buy a longarm quilting machine? To be honest, not really. However, much like a woman who, after 16 hours of labour, swears she will never have another baby and is pregnant again within two years – never say never!

Note: The pattern used for the quilt is called Pins and Paws, by the Missouri Star Quilt Company. The quilt was made and donated to the CATastrophe cat rescue organization to be used in their fundraising efforts. Visit www.catastrophescats.org for more information on the organization.

  • Karen Jorgenson Cooper

    Interesting! Thank you for sharing your experience! Do you do a lot of free motion quilting on your domestic machine? I’m wondering if the actions or experience transfers at all or if it was a completely different skill to learn.

    • QuiltersConnectionMagazine

      I do not consider myself an expert at free-motion quilting, Karen. However, I have for many years done basic free motion on my domestic machine – mostly on smaller quilts. Larger quilts I frequently send out to a professional quilter. I found using a longarm a completely different experience than free-motion quilting on a domestic, for sure! The movements are completely different, and free-motion is actually easier on a longarm, I think. I just found it very difficult to follow the pantograph. I am aware that there are other options though (computerized machines for one), including something called a ‘groovy board’ (by HandiQuilter) which is a board with grooves, and you follow the grooves with a stylus attached to the machine, and it’s very difficult to veer out the groove. That might be more my speed!

  • Wilma Mulder

    What make of long-arm was this? I’m puzzled by the fact that you had to pin the top to the frame. I rent time on a APQS and only the backing gets snapped on and rolled up on the frame, the batting and top get basted to the backing on the edges…

    • QuiltersConnectionMagazine

      I didn’t actually pin the top to the frame (my apologies for the misconception), Wilma – it was the backing fabric. I was using an HQ Avante – and I had to pin the backing to the leader. I admit, it was time consuming – I’m sure having a machine that allows you to snap the backing into place would make it go much faster!

  • Joy French

    I wouldn’t discount a pantograph as a first time experience. I did a pantograph the first time I tried longarm quilting, and even though it was not perfect, it gave me a pleasing overall pattern. By the time I had completed the large lap sized quilt, I felt comfortable with all aspects of quilting with a panto.